Teacher Handbook to Roanoke Revisited


Nearly 500 years ago, in the royal courts of Europe, in the baronial castles, in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site - Heritage Education Programmarketplaces of country towns, and at wayside taverns, people were listening to strange and wonderful stories.

More exciting than the legends that Marco Polo had brought from the distant East, these stories told of a New World to the West, on the other side of their planet Earth, which they learned was wondrously round.

The discovery of this New World was a thunderous crescendo at the height of that symphony of art, intellect, and spirit that was the High Renaissance. When energized by this powerful movement, the human spirit knew no bounds nor recognized any limits to intellectual or physical endeavor. The New World had been discovered, therefore it must be explored and conquered by settlement for the glory of Christ and the favored Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, for between them the Pope in Rome had divided the whole of the New World in 1494.

No discovery like this had ever occurred. All other "new lands" had been attached to the vast Euro-Asian-African landmass then known to exist.

Were our astronauts to go to Mars and discover a people and a civilization as rich and varied as our own, the excitement would not be half so much. For how many of us could go there? But a great many Europeans could get to the Americas. And they did. They sailed the turbulent Atlantic in ships as light as 50 tons and some 40 feet long. Their sea voyages were full of peril and fears of the unknown and lasted from 8 to 10 weeks without sight of land or communication with the Old World they had left. Such voyages to the New World required a courage bred in faith and sustained by the thrill of adventure and the hope of making a new start in life. Such faith and courage inspired both men and women.

The English were almost foolhardy in their courage and their adventure onto the shores of North America. The English realized the wealth and power that the exploration and exploitation of the New World had brought to Spain. Many important individuals felt that to challenge the economic and naval might of Spain, England must establish colonies of her own in this New World. They knew the lands were inhabited by strange humans whom they thought of as dangerous savages. The land was 3,500 miles from the protecting power of England, and they feared their settlement would be discovered by Spaniards and perhaps wiped out by them. They knew that the Spanish had ruthlessly destroyed, in 1565, the attempted French settlement on the Atlantic coast of Florida (Fort Caroline), and that they had massacred that same year the shipwrecked French Protestants under Jean Ribault at Matanzas Inlet. This crushing of French colonial efforts was known to Ralegh, the well-in-formed of Elizabeth's court, the London merchants, and the adventurous ship captains.

But it was amidst the mind-awakening Renaissance in England during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, 1558-1603, that these first adventures occurred. The attempts to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island directly connect the American people with the Court of this great queen, and with the golden age of English art, literature, and adventure. The figures who play the chief roles in this story of exploration, settlement, relations with the American Indians, and eventual failure are epic figures of English history: Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen after whom the new land was named "Virginia"; Sir Walter Ralegh, poet, soldier, courtier, and financial mainstay of the colonization; and Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to sail around the world.

The Roanoke Island colonial venture was truly heroic. Despite the hostility of Spain — the greatest naval and colonial power of that day — and of Spanish Florida, these men and women suffered or died in the first serious English effort to start the conquest of a large part of the North American continent by the slow process of agriculture, industry, and trade. The hardships of the first colony in 1585 and 1586 under Gov. Ralph Lane and the disappearance of the "Lost Colony" of 1587 helped teach the English the practical difficulties of settling this new land and enabled them to grow in colonial wisdom. The birth of Virginia Dare on August 18, 1587 — the first child of English parentage whose birth was recorded in the New World — symbolized the hope of establishing a new English-speaking nation beyond the sea.

Jamestown, in Virginia, commemorates the successful settlement of English America which grew out of the dreams of Ralegh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, his elder half-brother. Fort Raleigh, because of the "Lost Colony" mystery, memorializes the cost of early English colonial effort. It also commemorates a forgotten part of the price that England paid to establish a colonial foothold in North America: the colonists on Roanoke Island, in a sense, were sacrificed that England might employ all her fighting strength against the seemingly invincible Spanish Armada. To carry the much-needed supplies to the Roanoke colony in 1588, in the place of Sir Richard Grenville's warships, England could spare only two small pinnaces, and they did not reach Roanoke. For the glorious victory over the Armada and for the gradual emergence of British sea power after 1588, England risked the survival of her infant colony in America.

The statesmen, merchants, and ship captains of Elizabethan England shared the adventurous and speculative spirit of the Spaniards and Portuguese who had established empires in the New World after 1492. Religious zeal and both personal and national interests sparked the competition. Englishmen tried to find a northwest passage through the American continent to capture the wealth of the East Indies for England and to turn the mineral and agricultural wealth of North America into English fortunes as Spaniards had done with the gold of Mexico and Peru.

On June 11, 1578, Gilbert obtained from Elizabeth a charter to discover and colonize "remote heathen and barbarous lands" not actually possessed by any Christian prince. In 1583, he ventured almost his entire fortune and that of his wife in an attempt to explore the northern part of North America and found a colony. The Queen herself displayed interest in the enterprise by giving Ralegh a good-luck token to send to Gilbert just before the expedition sailed. Gilbert landed at St. John's, Newfoundland, and claimed it for England. But on coasting southward, he met with repeated misfortunes, turned away, and was drowned on the return voyage to England. He had insisted on sailing in one of his smaller ships: "I will not forsake my little company going homeward, with whom I have passed so many storms and perils." Among his last recorded words was the famous cry to his men in the larger boat, "We are as neere to heaven by sea as by land." His last will and testament, dated August 8, 1582, makes clear that his ultimate purpose had been to found an English empire beyond the seas to be colonized by English people.

Gilbert's heroic death must have deeply moved his half-brother. Ralegh had sailed with him in an expedition of 1578 and had outfitted a ship intended to participate in the great voyage of 1583 to Newfoundland. In 1584, when the Gilbert patent was to expire, Ralegh stood high in the favor of the Queen and received a charter which confirmed to him the powers formerly enjoyed by Gilbert.

Ralegh seems to have moved quickly to implement his patent, for in 1584 he sent a two barks on a voyage of reconnaissance. Presumably the purpose was to explore the coast of North America from Spanish Florida to Newfoundland for a good harbor, but one that was so concealed that it could not be easily found by the Spaniards.

On April 27, 1584, Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe left the west of England in two barks "well furnished with men and victuals." Among the company of explorers was Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese from the Azores, who had been master of the Falcon under the captaincy of Ralegh and who was known as the "man" of the Queen's secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham. Fernandes had sailed to the coast of America and back in 3 months in 1580. His knowledge of navigation was to make him a key figure in many Roanoke Island enterprises.

The explorers landed July 13, 1584, on the North Carolina coast, about 24 miles from Roanoke Island, and took possession of the country for Elizabeth with the proviso that the land be for the use of Ralegh, according to the Queen's charter. Despite the passing of more than 400 years, Barlowe's description of the country is still basically true, if pardonably exuberant. They found it: very sandie, and lowe towards the water side, but so full of grapes [scuppernongs], as the very beating and surge of the Sea ouerflowed them, of which we founde such plentie, as well there, as in all places else, both on the sande, and on the greene soile on the hils, as in the plaines, as well on euery little shrubbe, as also climing towardes the toppes of the high Cedars, that I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde.

From their landing place they proceeded along the seashore toward the "toppes of those hils next adioyning", from the summit of which they beheld the sea on both sides and came to realize that they were on a barrier island. After admiring the scene, they discharged an arquebus shot, whereupon: a flocke of Cranes (the most part white) arose...with such a crye redoubled by many Ecchoes, as if an armie of men had showted all together.

On the fourth day they were visited by Granganimeo, brother of Wingina, chief of the Roanoke Island American Indians. After a short period of trading, Barlowe and seven others went by boat to Roanoke Island at the north end of which they found a palisaded American Indian village. Here they were entertained with primitive but hospitable Indian ceremony. The American Indians appeared "gentle, loving, and faithful." The explorers described Roanoke Island as "a most pleasant and fertile ground, replenished with goodly Cedars, and divers other sweete woods, full of Corrants [grapes], flaxe, and many other notable commodities." Game and fish were abundant.

The picture Amadas and Barlowe took back to Ralegh in September 1584 was a rosy one, for they had seen Roanoke Island in midsummer. The American Indians were generous, because at this season of the year they had plenty in contrast to the scarcity of their winter fare; and the white man was new to them, though they had heard of others wrecked on the coast years before. Amadas and Barlowe took two American Indians, Wanchese and Manteo, back to England with them so Ralegh might learn, firsthand, the character of the coastal American Indians. Elizabeth apparently was pleased by the western exploit, for she called the new possession "Virginia," perhaps at the suggestion of the poetic and courtly Ralegh.


The next spring, Ralegh sent a group of 108 persons to Roanoke Island. Commanded by Ralegh's cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, the expedition hoped to establish a base for England's privateering fleet in order to prey on Spanish shipping. The fleet sailed from Plymouth, England, on April 9, 1585, in seven ships, the largest being 140 tons. Included in the group of ship captains and colonists were Amadas and Fernandes of the expedition of the previous year; Thomas Cavendish, then on his first great voyage but destined to be the third circumnavigator of the globe; Grenville's half-brother, John Arundell, and bother-in-law, John Stukeley; and other Ralegh cousins and connections, among them a Courtenay, a Prideaux, Richard Gilbert, Ralph Lane, and Anthony Rowse, a friend of Drake's. Also on board were John White, an artist; Thomas Harriot, a navigator and mathematician and naturalist; Joachim Ganz, a metallurgist from Bohemia; and, among the humbler folk, an Irishman, Darby Glande (or Glaven). The American Indians, Wanchese and Manteo, returned to America on this voyage.

The route chosen lay via the Canaries and the Spanish West Indies. They anchored at the "Baye of Muskito" (Guayanilla Bay) at the Island of "St. Johns" (Puerto Rico), May 12, where they constructed a fort, set up a forge to make nails, and built a small, fast pinnace to replace one lost in a storm. They left Puerto Rico toward the end of May after burning the fort and surrounding woods and seizing two Spanish frigates. Just before departing, Ralph Lane raided "Roxo bay" (Cabo Rojo) in one of the captured frigates, "intrenched him selfe vpon the sandes," and seized a supply of salt from the Spanish.

These bellicose activities of the English in Puerto Rico illustrate the fact that England and Spain were virtually at war at the time. Indeed, the war became an actuality within three years. In the meantime, the English were engaged in what today would be called a "cold war" — attacking the Spaniards in the West Indies and preparing to settle on the American mainland at a spot sufficiently close to Spanish Florida to constitute both an economic and a military threat to Spain.

Growth of the English colony would circumscribe Spain's own colonial effort; at the same time, the location chosen for the English colony was close enough to serve as a base of operations against Spanish New World shipping. That both possibilities were uppermost in the minds of Ralegh and Grenville and their supporters at court is obvious. One of the weaknesses of their colonial program was their persistent thought that privateering operations against Spanish shipping should, or could, be made to pay the cost of English colonial efforts.

The first part of June found the English banqueting the uneasy Spanish governor at Isabella on the Island of Hispaniola. To impress him, Grenville treated him to a sumptuous meal served "all in plate" to the "sound of trumpets and consort of musicke." The governor entertained in turn, and the English subsequently traded with the Spaniards for commodities that would be needed in their colonial settlement: "horses, mares, kine, buls, goates, swine, sheepe, bullhides, sugar ginger." From Spanish accounts of Grenville's actions in Puerto Rico and Haiti are gained some interesting personal glimpses: The members of the expedition include men skilled in all trades, and among them were about twenty who appeared to be persons of some importance, whose food was served on plate of silver and gold. They were accompanied by two tall Indians [Manteo and Wanchese], whom they treated well, and who spoke English...They took away with them many banana plants and other fruit trees which they found along the shore, and made drawings of fruits and trees. The English "said that their intention was to establish a colony, but did not say where."

The English left Puerto Rico and reached an island south of Cape Hatteras now known as Ocracoke on June 26. They spent the rest of the month and most of July exploring the coastal island and adjacent mainland. During one of these expeditions, in retaliation for the alleged theft of a silver cup by an American Indian, Grenville sought to strike terror into the hearts of the Indians by burning the Indian village of Aquascogoc. Not until July 27 did Grenville anchor in the Pamlico Sound of Hatarask barrier island, a short distance southeast of Roanoke Island. Almost due east of the southern tip of Roanoke Island, Fernandes had discovered a break in the barrier reef which gave the ships entry from the open sea into the relative shelter of Roanoke Sound. They named it Port Ferdinando in his honor.

A colony was established on the north end of Roanoke Island, and Ralph Lane was made governor. From Port Ferdinando, and later from Roanoke Island, Lane wrote letters to Secretary Walsingham informing him of the successful founding of the colony. He also wrote a letter to Sir Philip Sidney, a son-in-law of Walsingham who was interested in western discovery. In a letter from the Roanoke settlement, Ralph Lane told Richard Hakluyt the Elder that he was impressed by the "huge and unknowen greatnesse" of the American continent and that if Virginia had horses and cows in some reasonable proportion and were inhabited by Englishmen, no realm in Christendom would be comparable to it. The American Indians, he said naively, were "courteous, and very desirous to have clothes," but valued red copper above everything else. Wingina, had received the white men hospitably and had cooperated with them in the initial phases of the founding of the settlement, according to an account by Grenville.

Grenville lingered a short while after the founding of the settlement, then returned to England for supplies. On the way home he captured a richly laden Spanish ship, which must have repaid him handsomely for his western trip. On his arrival in England, he reported to Walsingham, thus acknowledging the interest of the Queen and emphasizing the national — not just personal — character of the Virginia enterprise.

Lane built a small earthen fort which he called "The Newe Forte in Virginia." The light sandy soil allowed the men to complete the fort in a short time. It was reportedly near the shore on the east side of Roanoke Island between the "North Point" of the north end of the island and a "creek." The mouth of the creek was big enough to serve as the anchorage for small boats.

Lane's Fort on Roanoke Island may have resembled the one he had built on St. Johns Island, Puerto Rico, in May 1585, which was sketched by John White. Both forts may have been roughly shaped like a star built on a square with the bastions constructed on the sides of the square instead of at the corners. This construction pattern was common among European armies.

The houses of the early colonists may have been near the fort, which was too small to enclose them. They were described by the colonists as "decent dwelling houses" or "cottages" and must have been at least a story and a half or two stories high, because of a reference to the "neather [lower] roomes of them." The roofs were thatched, as we learn from Ralph Lane's statement that the American Indians by night "would have beset my house, and put fire in the reedes that the same was covered with." The chimneys and the foundations may have been of brick, because Darby Glande later testified to the Spanish that "as soon as they had disembarked they began to make brick and fabrick for a fort and houses."

However, because no evidence of extensive use of brick has been found, it probably is safe to assume that the chief building materials were straw, mud, and wooden poles. The colonists reportedly had a forge which they could have set up to make nails. Richard Hakluyt had recommended in his Discourse of Western Planting — written in 1584 at Ralegh's request, that any colonial expedition should include: "men expert in the art of fortification, makers of spades and shovels, shipwrights, mill-wrights of various trades, sawyers, carpenters, brickmakers and bricklayers, tilemakers and tilelayers, lyme-makers, masons, lathmakers, and thatchers." It is presumed, therefore, that English thatched cottages typical of rural Elizabethan England were built at Roanoke. The cottages probably were well built, as skilled laborers in the expedition had been able to construct a seaworthy pinnace at Puerto Rico in less than 1 month.

The leaders explored the coast as far south a Secotan (about 80 miles) and as far north a Chesepiock (Chesapeake) Bay (about 130 miles). Thomas Harriot collected data on plants, animals, and minerals for his A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. Harriot's descriptions were clear and concise and included most of the flora and fauna found on Roanoke Island: Cedar, a very sweet wood & fine timber; whereof if nests of chests be there made, or timber thereof fitted for sweet & fine bedsteads, tables, deskes...& many things else...to make vp fraite with other principal commodities will yeeld profite.

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Wine: There are two kinds of grapes that the soile doth yeeld naturally: the one is small and sowre of the ordinarie bignesse as ours in England; the other farre greater & of himselfe lushious sweet. When they are planted and husbanded as they ought, a principall commoditie of wines by them may be raised.

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Medlars[persimmons] a kinde of verie good fruit, so called by vs chieflie for these respectes: first in that they are not good vntill they be rotten...they are as red as cheries and very sweet: but whereas the cherie is sharpe sweet, they are lushious sweet.

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Squirels, which are a grey colour, we haue taken and eaten.

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Beares which are all of blacke colour. The beares of this countrey are good meat; the inhabitants in time of winter do use to take & eate manie, so also sometimes did wee.

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There are also Troutes: Porpoises: Rayes: Oldwiues: Mullets: Plaice [flounder]: and very many other sortes of excellent good fish, which we haue taken and eaten...

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Of the American Indians, whose culture he respected, Harriot wrote: They are a people clothed with loose mantles made of Deere skins, & aprons of the same rounde about their middles...

Their townes are small, & neere the sea coast but fewe, some containing but 10. or 12. houses: some 20. the greatest that we haue seene haue bene but of 30. houses: if they be walled it is only done with barks of trees made fast to stakes, or els with poles onely fixed vpright and close one by another.

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Notwithstanding their proper manner considering the want of such meanes as we haue, they seeme very ingenious; For although they haue no such tooles, nor any such craftes, sciences and artes as wee; yet in those things they doe, they shewe excellencie of wit. And by howe much they vpon due consideration shall finde our manner of knowledges and craftes to exceede theirs in perfection, and speed for doing or execution, by so much the more is it probable that they shoulde desire our friendships & loue, and haue the greater respect for pleasing and obeying vs. Whereby may bee hoped if meanes of good gouernment bee vsed, that they may in short time be brought to ciuilitie, and the imbracing of true religion.

John White made watercolor paintings of the American Indians, the animal and plant life of Roanoke Island, and maps of the coast. The colonists learned to smoke tobacco, using Indian pipes or ones they modeled on the Indian pipes.

How closely the personnel of the first colony conformed to the standards suggested by Hakluyt in 1584 is not known but contemporary accounts indicate that Ralegh followed his advice for the colony to include men expert in fortification, brickmakers, carpenters, and thatchers. The names of the colonists are known, if not their trades. Some are gentlemen, cousins of Ralegh and Grenville. Harriot wrote that some were city dwellers "of a nice bringing up" who soon became miserable without their soft beds and good food. Others were excellent soldiers, as Lane testifies of Capt. Edward Stafford; and there were the humbler folk, of whom Glande was perhaps representative, though he was Irish and apparently was forced to accompany the expedition.

On the whole, they gave the appearance more of a military expedition than a colony. They had arrived late in the growing season; they had not learned how to grow and gather their own food; and most of their original supplies had been lost when their flagship Tiger ran aground at Croatoan. These circumstances meant they continued to be dependent upon the American Indians for food and upon England for both food and supplies. Many of their basic commodities, such as salt, horses, and cattle, had been obtained in the first instance by trade, or by force, from the Spaniards in the West Indies. There were no women among them to give permanence to the settlement.

At first relations with the American Indians were friendly, though the Englishmen had their detractor in the council of the Indian chief. The American Indians planted crops and made fishtraps for the Englishmen. With rare foresight, the colonists also induced the chief — who had changed his name from Wingina to Pemisapan — to put into simultaneous cultivation his lands both on Roanoke Island and on the mainland at Dasemunkepeuc so the American Indians would have no excuse for not being able to supply the colony if need arose.

In the lean periods between the planting of the crops in the spring and the expected summer harvest, English relations with the American Indians grew strained and finally reached the point at which no further supplies of food could be scrounged from them. Infected by the vengeful and high-handed spirit of their times, the settlers would not really try to live on friendly terms with the natives. This led to Grenville's foolish action in burning the village of Aquascogoc on July 16, 1585. According to the log of the Tiger: One of our boates with the Admirall was sent to Aquascococke to demaund a siluer cup which one of the Sauages had stolen from vs, and not receiuing it according to his promise, we burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne, all the people beeing fledde.

In response, the American Indians began to rob or destroy the fishtraps of the English. Food became more and more scarce. Lane was forced to send groups of settlers to the barrier islands along the coast to feed upon oysters and other shellfish, and to keep watch for any ship that might come their way. Master Richard Prideaux and 10 men were sent to Hatarask Island and Captain Stafford and 20 men to Croatoan Island (Ocracoke) south of Cape Hatteras. At intervals, 16 or 20 others were sent to the mainland, also to feed upon oysters and wild plant foods.

Somehow they got through their first winter, without serious danger from the American Indians. But by the summer of 1586, Governor Lane feared some of the tribes were preparing to destroy the fledgling colony. A skirmish that occurred at the end of May caused Lane to prepare a surprise raid for the night of May 31. For this purpose he sent the Master of the light horsemen with a few with him, to gather vp all the Canoas...he met with a Conoa, going from the shoare, and ouerthrew the Conoa, and cut off 2. sauages heads....

This raid was not carried out in the secrecy planned for it, and a short battle ensued between the English and the American Indians. The next morning, June 1, Lane took his troops to Dasemunkepeuc to face Chief Pemisapan. Finding 7 or 8 chiefs gathered together, Lane gave the watchword "Christ Our Victory" and the attack was on. Pemisapan was "shot thorow by the Colonell with a pistoll [and was] lying on the ground for dead...." Suddenly the chief got up and raced into the woods, followed by an Irish soldier. Lane feared that both the Indian and his man had been lost but "we met him returning out of the woods with Pemisapans head in his hand."

Meanwhile, Grenville had been delayed in leaving England because of accidents to his ships upon leaving the port of Bideford and because he had seized several foreign ships and was distributing their cargoes and sending them as prizes to England. Ralegh's relief ship also was delayed by damage. It did not sail for his colony until April 3 and did not reach Port Ferdinando until the latter part of June.

Therefore the colonists were in a desperate state of affairs when Captain Stafford brought them news on June 9, 1586, that Sir Francis Drake was off the coast. His mighty fleet of 23 ships, richly laden with booty from his attacks on the Spanish West Indies and Florida, anchored the next day. Only part of the fleet sailed into the port near Roanoke Island, due to the shallow waters of the sound and the deep draft of the ships. The rest remained in the "wilde roade" of the open sea, 2 miles from the barrier island. Lane and some of his company went aboard the flagship, and after describing their plight to Drake, received from him a most generous offer.

He would give them the bark Francis, of 70 tons, and certain boats with enough shipmasters, sailors, and supplies to afford another month's stay at Roanoke and a return voyage to England; or he would take all of them, 103 persons, on board for immediate passage to England with his fleet. Lane was loath to give up the Roanoke Island colony and therefore accepted the first offer. The Francis was turned over to him, anchored in the open sea, but before supplies could be made ready, a great storm blew up and the ship lost all her anchors. She was forced to sail out to sea to avoid the coast, and continued on to England.

Through his fleet suffered other losses in this storm, Drake remained openhanded. He again offered Lane supplies and another ship, but because his vessel was much too large to be harbored at Port Ferdinando, its acceptance and dependence upon it would involve a great risk. It would have to be anchored outside the barrier island, in the "wilde roade," and could also be driven away or lost in a storm. This left the colonist in the grave situation described in 1615 by William Camden, an English historian: Hereupon Lane and those who were planted there, being in great Penury and want, and out of all Hope of Provisions out of England, their Number also much diminished, with one voice besought Drake that he would carry them back again into their own Countrey, which he readily and willingly did.

When Drake sailed, on June 19, 1586, he carried the entire colony home to England with him. More patience and more faith in Ralegh might have saved the colony, for within a week the Tiger arrived at Roanoke bearing the supplies sent out from England by Sir Walter. After searching the island and Hatarask in vain for the colonists, the Tiger set sail for England. On the way from England the Tiger had not encountered Drake's large fleet because the supply ships followed the westerly trade winds to the south and, upon reaching the continent, sailed north up the coast from Florida. Meanwhile Drake was sailing directly east to England.

The disappointment and irony was heightened by the arrival of Grenville's ships about a fortnight after Ralegh's ship left. Grenville also found the settlement places desolate, but being "unwilling to loose the possession of the country which Englishmen had so long held," he left 15 men on Roanoke Island, fully provisioned for 2 years, to hold the country for the Queen until more colonists could be sent to support them. Grenville then returned to England.

Portrait of a New World

No picture of his exists and little is known of his personal life; yet, he remains vividly alive because of his activities during five voyages to America — 1584, 1585-86, 1587, and 1590. Painter, surveyor, mapmaker, colonial governor, shrewd observer of the natural scene, John White brought the New World to life through his journals and, most importantly, his remarkable set of watercolors.

White was probably born in London sometime between 1540 and 1550 and died about 1606. He wrote in the style of an educated man, but no evidence exists as to his schooling or training. He may have learned his craft of draftsman and artist as a member of the Painters and Stainers Company of London. A John White appears as a member of that guild in 1580. Of his family, almost nothing is known. He married between 1565 and 1570 and was the father of at least one daughter, Eleanor, the mother of Virginia Dare. Both his daughter and granddaughter disappeared with the "Lost Colony."

Despite this very dim picture of John White, his personality emerges through his written and pictorial memories of "Virginia." It is apparent from his writings that White was a sensitive and accurate reporter. A deep personal involvement with the American colonial ventures shows through clearly in all his manuscripts — first as a colonist and then as governor. His paintings, however, are White's most perceptive mode of expression. With a vitality and freshness unique in the 16th century, White presented a new land and its people to a waiting Europe.

It was unusual for an artist to go on a voyage of discovery, but not uncommon for a member of the expedition to make notes and crude drawings. The importance of carrying a trained observer on an exploratory voyage became increasingly evident to all nations. Not only were scientist eager for new data, but future colonists wanted to know what they might be facing in a strange land. Sir Walter Raleigh did not give him specific instructions on what to record, but there is little doubt that White followed the advice given to all English explorers in 1582: Also drawe to liefe all strange birdes beastes fishes plantes hearbes Trees and fruictes and bring home of each sorte as nere as you may. Also drawe the figures and shapes of men and woemen in their apparell as also of their manner of wepons in every place as you shall finde them differing. The skill with which White followed these instructions made him much more than an "artist assistant" — it made him a prime authority in his own right.

White and Thomas Harriot found a new continent "sitting for its portrait" and proceeded to record all that they saw. Of course the American Indians did more than sit, they sang, danced, fished, hunted, and fought with their enemies. White's manner of drawing the native people was as spontaneous as their actions — applying his colors directly to the paper without any surface preparation after outlining the subject in black lead. He probably sat off to the side quietly observing the American Indians with his sensitive and understanding eye, then swiftly conveying his impressions to paper. Most 16th century artists tended to Europeanize their subjects and pose them in unnatural situations. One of John White's greatest contributions to our knowledge of the American Indians was his delicate naturalism in portraying his subjects. The bulk of White's drawings — plants, animals, and people — were made during the 1585-86 voyages. These were an eloquent record of America, painted with imaginative insight and freshness.

The John White watercolors, engraved by Theodore de Bry, first appeared in 1590 as part of a volume entitled America. The publication went through 17 printings and was translated into four languages between 1590 and 1630. For three centuries it stood as the main source of pictorial presentation of the American Indian and life in the New World. The drawings were then lost until 1866 when the British Museum secured at least a partial collection of the originals from the Earl of Charlemont. It was almost another century before the paintings were reproduced again. The publication of the John White Prints in the volume America 1585 offers modern eyes what De Bry's engravings presented to the Tudor world.

Perhaps it does not matter that we know so little of John White the man --- his art is his memorial.

-- Michael Strock

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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